05 September 2006

Miles Mathis

is a curmudgeon, and I mean that in a good way. He’s a modern realist painter who does mostly paintings of women and girls, some nude, some not. I like some of his stuff and find some of it rather saccharine, but then he’s a selling artist and I’m currently just a wannabe.

At his web site, he has a number of essays that express strong, independent opinions about art and culture. He writes well and with great conviction. I certainly don't agree with everything he says, but I find it very worthwhile to check his site from time to time and see if he’s written anything new. What he writes is almost always worth reading and thinking about. He recently posted a short essay on his painting materials and techniques. He’s a traditionalist and—not surprisingly—he's cranky about how most other artists are lazy with choosing their methods and materials. He paints on linen and primes it himself with lead white. He uses mostly an earth palette and believes strongly that those are the colors that can best be used to represent flesh (I often use earths for flesh tones also). He uses a home made dammar final varnish.
Many buyers have said that my paintings have the same sort of paint that old paintings seem to have, whereas contemporary paintings, even when they are very good, don't. There is a very simple reason for that. I work differently than most modern painters, and that difference starts with my canvas. In my opinion almost all modern materials are garbage, pure and simple. They were created for speed and convenience and price and safety, not for quality. Most professional artists know this and will admit it, and yet most professional artists, even at the top of the field, use inferior pre-stretched canvases.

While I agree with much of what he says, I do have a couple of quibbles. I, too, like to prime with lead, but he uses a lead white paint (Old Holland cremnitz white). I'd recommend an actual lead white primer (he may not be aware that those exist on the market), such as Studio Product's excellent white lead in black oil primer or Williamsburg's lead oil ground. He also confuses organic and inorganic pigments. Earth pigments are not organic; they're rocks and dirt. Many modern pigments, such as pthalocyanines, are classed as organic, since they are based on various carbon molecules. He does correctly label the cadmium colors he despises as inorganics. But the gist is clear: he prefers an old master palette (even if he doesn't know how to describe it technically) from before the explosion of modern pigment manufacture in the 1800's. Specifically, he says he likes Titian's palette, although he doesn't say exactly what he means by that. Titian used colors like azurite and lead tin yellow that are pretty hard to find these days (but not impossible). If you like writing that is passionate and interesting, take a look at his site.


painterdog said...

Titian's palette?
know one knows what Titian's palette was.

They mixed there own colors from earth pigments and heavy metals.

Sorry to say this but this chap is not that good a painter.

Goggle Frank Mason and you will see a real master. By the Frank uses cadmiums and is 85 amd has been studying the old master since he was 14 years old.

one more thing, you prime with a lead white with black oil its going to yellow and crack.

David said...


What makes you think we don't know what pigments Titian used? Conservators take tiny samples of paintings and subject them to chemical analysis. The Venetian palette was very extensive compared to those of other artists in the Renaissance, because Venice was a center of the international pigment trade. The palette consisted of a number of earths, vermillion, red lead (massicot), flake white (ceruse), lead tin yellow (gallorino), ultramarine, azurite, red lake, yellow lake, copper green, smalt, and various carbon blacks. Unlike most of their contemporaries, Venetians also used arsenic-based pigments—orpiment and realgar—despite their poisonous nature. Mathis' belief that Titian's palette consisted entirely of earths is completely incorrect.

They certainly didn't use cadmiums, however, since those pigments didn't exist then. They had a bright red—vermillion. While it is similar to some cadmium reds in masstone, it doesn't mix the way vermillion does. They didn't have a color comparable in brightness to cadmium yellow. Their brightest opaque yellow—gallorino—is not nearly so chromatic as cadmium.

Miles is hardly my favorite modern realist painter, although some of his stuff is pleasant. I think he's an interesting read.

Why do you think that lead white in black oil will crack? Lead compounds are very flexible, and maintain their flexibility over centuries. Rubens used black oil extensively and his paintings are generally in very good shape.

By the way, I checked out your site. Your paintings are very good.

David said...


Thanks for the reference to Frank Mason. His work is lively and very good. His influences are clearly more from the baroque period than from Titian's high Renaissance work.

I note that he is a devotee of Jacques Maroger. Maroger was a proponent of black oil, which you seem to think is a bad addition to paint. The medium named after Maroger is a combination of black oil and thick mastic varnish. Is Mr. Mason wrong to support Maroger's views on painting materials?

Thanks again for commenting here.

painterdog said...

What I meant is that while we have an idea due to information on what colors the Venitians used we don't have a complete record on Titian's practice. He was very secretive, as most artist in tha period were.

The list you have included is what I have found in my reasearch.

The pigments used then are so much different for what we use now.

I guess you could recreate a 16 century palette from a sorce such as Kreamer pigments but it would be pretty toxic.


I have a lot of experience with this stuff, have made it myself, do not recommend you do this. Very toxic.

Frank Mason has not used Maroger in over 20 years because it turns all light colors darker and has a tendency to crack.

He uses mediums from this company called Alchemist Inc, not sure you know this company but here is the link ambervarnish.com

I have not used it but I hear great things about it and its not as toxic as Maroger.

All my paintings done with Maroger have cracked.

Lead is a dryer, so adding more dryer to it and using at as ground will promote cracking.

Also the stuff turns all whites yellow.

"Rubens used black oil extensively and his paintings are generally in very good shape."

Sorry my friend he did not use Maroger, yes there was lead in his medium but it was not Maroger's recipe, check out ambervarnish.com
it very interesting.

David said...


Titian certainly did obscure his working techniques, although modern technical analysis can shed some light on what pigments were used, and in what order.

I don't think it's that hard to re-create something close to a Renaissance palette. Flake white is still common. I have a tube of lead tin yellow and a tube of genuine vermillion from Robert Doak. The earth colors, for the most part, are still available. Ultramarine is now cheap. Azurite is expensive, but possible to get. Alizarin is similar to red lakes. If you are careful, you can have a palette that is functionally quite similar.

I don't use a whole lot of Maroger. I don't make it myself and I'm not too concerned with toxicity when using it, as I am pretty careful with studio technique. I find that it is occasionally useful for a particular passage.

I'm sorry that your Maroger paintings have cracked. I'm curious: how much of the stuff did you add to your paint? I am very careful to use only very small amounts of any medium. I have read that some of Maroger's followers had trouble with problem paintings, while the paintings of others have survived in excellent condition to this day. I am wondering whether the difference is that some of them were too l
iberal in their use of the stuff. I know some of them also used it as a final varnish, which seems incorrect to me.

I am aware of the Alchemist medium folks. I haven't tried their products.

I do not think that Rubens used Maroger medium, although it is not impossible that he used some kind of gel medium (meglip). However, I don't know of any evidence that black oil promotes cracking. I certainly don't know of any reason why it would cause a lead ground to crack.

painterdog said...

I think the reason is to much dryer.
black oil also makes light colors darker over time.

All of Maroger's painting have become darker. some have become so dark you can hardly see them. They look like they had been painted at night in a dark room.

I just used it as a medium, I did not mix my colors with it.

The problem with Maroger medium is its not stable. I have a friend who lives in Arizona, you can't use it out there as its to hot. The stuff keeps getting soft in the summer and hardening in the winter, promoting craking, and the paintings became dust magnets.

I had the same thing happen to me and I don't live in the South West, the paintings cracked because of movement.

I have also made sun oil with lead, so you get a drying oil but its not dark. This worked real well.

I still use sun thickended oil.

Yeah you can simulate an Titian's palette, I use a palette that is kind of like this. Although tin lead and vermillion(if its real I think it has mercury in it)are two colors I don't use.

Lead white is not made the same way it was 500 hundered years ago, so what we have as lead white is not what Rembrandt or Titian used.

Ultramarine, I think this was lapis lazuri which is very expensive, but it was in Titian's day as well, which is why its was only used as a glaze.

I like to mix old pallets with some new colors such as cadmiums I find this is a good mix.

I have different palettes for different situations, such as landscape or still life.

I think one can get to caught up in all of this and if your not careful your using a lot of toxic materials.

Which become air born somewhat when you clean your brushes.

painterdog said...

lead is already a dryer. so mixing it with more dryer could cause it to dry to fast.

Also it will yellow with time as black oil makes whites yellow.

David said...


I haven't seen any evidence that a black oil primer would cause drying that is too fast. It seems to be the case that early oil painters used oils treated with lead and other metals, and their work is often in very good shape. Black oil/lead white primer does dry with a warm tone, which I like in a primer (not a mixing white).

painterdog said...

Yes but they used lead white, that is a sugar of lead paste mixed with linseed or walnut oil.

I don't see any recepies in any of my studies that use a cooked oil for a ground, I could be wrong, but I don't remember any.

In Italy during Titian's time different regions had different methods for priming, the Venitians used a oil/chalk ground. (true gesso, then lead white on top)

The lead used from the mid 19 century on back is different than what we have now. Now we have a very industrial processed product.

Have you ever tried a lead oil in made in the sun?

It takes month or more to make dries like black oil and is lighter than linseed.

David said...


No, I haven't made sun-thickened leaded oil. At some point I will. I do have some of Doak's sun-thickened walnut oil (which is very, very thick).

Anonymous said...

I find your article and comments on Miles Mathis interesting. I think I should let you know that his website address has changed to www.mileswmathis.com.

You might wanna update the links you have so your readers can find him again. Something about geocity censor. It was on cowdisley.